May 10, 2003
More on vernacular architectural continuities

Today more journeying by car, and I can now report further on the matter of architectural vernacular continuity. I hope that last phrase makes some sense. I'm referring to the feeling I get in these parts (the extreme and nearly Spanish parts of France in Perpignan and places south) that the way they build houses now is an evolved version of how they have always built them, rather than a modernistical discontinuity imposed from above by big housing entrepreneurs, and of course by big government and big government's regulations.

Start with that matter of big government. Government around here is not all big. It is also small. Local government in France is a lot stronger than it is in Britain, and this has, I'm sure, been good for local vernacular building traditions and bad for any attempts to impose a national building style based on nationally available - but not necessarily locally familiar - materials.

Seond, as I have already reported here, the typical house is built not by a big firm for a clutch of later customers buying a house off the shelf, but by a small builder building a bespoke dwelling for an individual house buyer, who has already purchased his own plot of land. Today, we were driving along a valley further inland, towards the higher parts of the Pyrenees, and when you do that you can look across to the other side of the valley and see one of European life's greatest visual glories, namely a town all built in a similar style on the side of the hill, but with each building being slightly different, at a slightly different angle, and with slightly different design decisions embodied in it. Together these buildings form, not a unified architectural design, but something far more life enhancing (because life-resembling): an architectural cluster.

Hill towns are classic examples of clusters. Another classic cluster is the skyscraper cluster. There again you see a cluster of buildings, each built in response to a distinct set of problems by a separate centre of decision-making, but using sufficiently similar materials and to solve sufficiently similar problems for the result to be a cluster of not (A) not identical but (B) very similar buildings.

The difference between the average hill town cluster and the average skyscraper cluster is that skyscraper clusters are still alive and being added to, with new smaller towers being added in the outskirts and brand new huge towers being added in the middle, while the average cute hill town cluster in Europe is now finished. If it is changed, the changes will be in a different style, so if you want the original cluster to be preserved, you'd better preserve it in aspic, so to speak, and refuse planning permission. In practice, the way you preserve a hill town cluster is to switch off economic development and turn the whole plave over to the tourist trade. Cute, as I say, but also depressing.

Well, in the valleys of southern France, if the valley in southern France that I saw today is anything to go by, there are clusters of town houses perched cutely on the side of hills which are still growing. These clusters do not depend on economic stagnation to preserve them from the new, because the new is sufficiently like the old to be a satisfactory addition to it. Because the venacular has suffered not technological discontinuities that are discontinuous enough to be aesthetically disruptive, you can see newly minted cuteness springing up right in front of your eyes.

The other item of information which I can now report concerns what I said in a previous posting about how modernism itself seems to be part of the vernacular in these parts. Concrete and stucco do not seem to be an alien imposition, but are rather a local habit.

I was right, and I have now discovered part of why I was right. It concerns roofs. In Britain, roofs are made of timber. But in these parts, roofs are made of, guess what? - reinforced concrete. Why? because timber gets eaten by termites.

Now. Think about it. You can build a wall with bricks or blocks or stones, and cement. So far so orthodox. That's how walls have been done in Britain for thousands of years also. But you can't do a sloping roof with bricks or blocks, unless you want to go to the bother of building a gothic cathedral every time all you actually want is a house. Thus it is that reinforced concrete is used in these parts not just in modernistical monstrosity office buildings and gigantic blocks of flats, but in regular old fashioned houses. The regular old fashioned house that I'm staying in now has a reinforced concrete roof. Brit tourist that I am, I couldn't tell this at a glance from the street, because this concrete roof is protected on its top by old fashioned terra cotta tiles. I only found out about the concrete when I was being shown round the house, including the attic.

What this means is that the average small builder in this part of France, and I'd guess in the entire southern, sunny part of Europe, knows about reinforced concrete as part of his daily routine. So when such a person moves up the building food chain to making small office blocks or blocks of flats, reinforced concrete is his obvious method. It's a smooth technological path. Again, there's no discontinuity. Reinforced concrete is not a technlogy that has to be imposed by the big building firms; it bubbles up spontaneously from the small building undergrowth.

I visited Athens in the late 1960s, when Athens was in the midst of a frenzy of building development. But although concrete was being used almost universally, it was being used in a vernacular way rather than in an "imposed" way, if you get my drift. The symptom of this is that buildings tended to line up with the old streets rather than with each other as part of some new masster plan. I loved it, but it is only now that I have worked out why. Yes it was modern, in the sense of technologically not eighteenth century, or ye olde, or hill town cute, but it still had that timeless old world charm, that came from the combined effect being a cluster rather than a grid, an aggregate of many separate decisions rather than than the imposition of the one dictatorial plan. That's the feeling you still get here in the towns too, mostly.

I am being asked to stop, and in any case I want to. Please pardon all errors, repetitions and plain blunders in the above. I have no time even to check this through, only the time to save it and scuttle away. Maybe when I get home I will be able to clearn it up at my leisure, and add some links. Meanwhile, I hope what went up first time around makes enough sense to make sense. See you tomorrow I hope.

UPDATE (Sunday): I went on about rooves in the above, but I should have included floors as well, for the same reason. Termites. It only reinforces the point about how small builders here are familiar with reinforced concrete technology. Although today I did see some timber work being done on a house under construction, so maybe an antidote to the termites has been discovered recently.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:13 PM
Category: Architecture